Seafood and Sippers
When it comes to pairing wine with seafood, the options are fairly diverse
There was a time when you had hard and fast rules for pairing wine and food: white with fish and red with meat. Guess what? Those rules have gone out the window and you can now pair seafood with pretty much whatever you want. Yes, some wines pair better with different types of fish or shellfish, but when it comes down to it, if your customer wants to drink cabernet Ssauvignon with a flaky white fish, that's their prerogative—even if you know that's truly something to avoid.
"The misconception you can't drink red with seafood is silly and antiquated," says Patricia Smith, beverage director for the 5Church Group with restaurants in Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta and Charleston, S.C. "With seafood, you want delicate flavors to come through. You don't want to drown out the flavors the chef has worked so hard to create. For me, with seafood, it's always acidity. You want to find acidity in wine to cleanse your palate and help food taste better—no matter if it's red or white."
Case in point: One of Smith's favorite grapes to pair with seafood is blaufrankisch, an Austrian varietal that often gets compared to pinot noir. It has a lighter body, often with some peppery notes, and is a colder-weather varietal with light, bright acid. "It's good with lobster or scallops that can be rich and buttery," she continues. She also likes French pinot noir for its light minerality and acidity. "I'm looking for that to pair with seafood."
While you can—and should—pair red wine with seafood, be careful what you grab. Any bigger, thick-skinned reds tend to not go great with fish or shellfish, especially really big cabs, zinfandel or Australian shiraz. Those wines tend to have more tannins, which work better with meatier foods, whether fish or otherwise.
"Be careful of using tannin with fish," says Jenelle Engleson, beverage director and lead sommelier for City Winery in Nashville. "The tannin will soften with a higher protein meat, but when you don't have that, it'll come back to your mouth with a noticeable aftertaste."
If your guests want red wine, especially if the seafood dish is prepared in a red sauce or a red wine reduction, Engleson suggests something lighter, like cru Beaujolais, red Burgundy or a pinot noir from Oregon.
"I'd stick to those to hold up to the sauce, but not to overpower the fish," Engleson says. "Otherwise you can have a metallic after taste in your mouth. It's like drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth."
Specific Seafood Pairings
More times than not when serving seafood, you'll reach for a bottle of white. No matter if you have oysters, shrimp, scallops, lobster or a variety of fish, white wine almost always works. But it's not cut and dry. Here are some pairings to consider:
Oysters: You want to balance the brininess and salinity of the bivalves, so look for something with nice minerality and acid like Champagne or muscadet or sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley region.
Shrimp: With a fairly bland natural flavor, shrimp soaks up any sauce or seasonings it's cooked in, giving you flexibility. You can look to pair it with chenin blanc, albariño or a fruity rosé. If you add it to a paella or pasta dish with red sauce, look toward red wines like a light pinot noir or fruity Beaujolais.
Lobster: People think meaty lobster is difficult to pair with, but you can always count on a rich, buttery chardonnay or medium-bodied Italian whites like gavi and soave.
Salmon: With as rich, fatty and oily as salmon is, look toward fuller-bodied whites like oak-aged chardonnay, viognier, white Burgundy or sauvignon blanc. But you can also pair lower-tannin reds like tempranillo from Rioja.
What to do with a smaller wine list?
Not every restaurant has the space for a large wine selection. If your list is small, don't fret. You can offer diners a few options if you're serving seafood. You'll want to focus on pinot gris/grigio, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay for whites and pinot noir for reds. If you can add something sparkling or a dry riesling, those will generally work as well. Just make sure you don't just have thicker-skinned reds like syrah, cabernet or zinfandel. Those really limit your options.
Chefs and Wine Pairings
We've heard from the wine professionals, but what about the folks who make the food? We asked chefs from around the country about their favorite wine pairings with different seafood.
"For wine and seafood pairings? Champagne ... always. Or a brutally dry riesling." - Chef Erik Niel, Easy Bistro & Bar and Main Street Meats, Chattanooga, Tenn.
"During crawfish season, I love pairing a spicy crawfish boil with vinho verde, which is really refreshing and crisp. Also, our loup de mer at Sidney Street is perfect with a pinot noir or a really light cab." - Chef Kevin Nashan, Sidney Street Café and The Peacemaker Lobster & Crab Co., St. Louis, Mo.
"When it comes to seafood-friendly wine, I am obsessed with Tocia (a.k.a. sauvignon vert) right now. It's a really interesting wine that is remarkably flexible and plays well with all kinds of seafood." - Chef Daniel Hegert, Little Octopus, Nashville
"One of my favorite pairings is white Burgundy with a nice, rich king crab poached in butter. It's almost perfect; they go really well together. Wine that doesn't have too much acid goes with the nice fattiness of the crab and butter." - Chef Giuseppe Tentori, GT Fish & Oyster, Chicago